My Favorite Music of 2013

jasonisbellThere was a time when I spent hours thinking of clever ways to describe the music of the past year. There’s not much need now. A brief description and a video and you can make up your mind whether my taste has soured or not.

So here’s what I listened to the most this year, a year that I thought was the best for new music in a long, long time.

Jason Isbell – Southeastern. This is the sound of a life falling apart and nearly ending and then trying to figure a way back from the darkness. Isbell’s disc is by far the album I listened to the most this year. “Traveling Alone” is simply stunning. “Stockholm” isn’t exactly subtle, speaking of a man trapped and entranced by his captors, whether people or addictions, looking to go home. “Cover Me Up” is the bluntest of confessions and a statement of resolve. “Elephant” will rip out your heart.

Aoife O’Donovan – Fossils. Languid, mellow and so entrancing. O’Donovan sings beautifully and plays with great taste, but don’t ignore the lyrical depth here. Check out the lyrics on “Beekeeper.”

Caitlin Rose – The Stand-In. This is why algorithms will never replace people. I learned about this album from Barry Friedman at Birdland Records when I walked in there one afternoon and he declared I had to have it. As usual, he was right. Rose moves easily from country rock to lounge crooner with a sexy swagger that’s irresistible.

Black Lillies – Runaway Freeway Blues. Last year, it was Shovels and Rope. This year it is the Black Lillies, simply a great alt-country band. Superb stories, the ability to be quiet and rocking. Listen to “The Fall” and try to tell me otherwise.

Kim Richey – Thorn in My Heart.Kim has traveled a lot of ground, geographically and sonically, moving from Nashville to London and back again. This brings her back to the beginnings, the great country songs that got her start in Nashville (we met in the 1990s when she was the centerpiece of a story on songwriters). There’s plenty of heartache here and that’s mighty fine. Check out the duet with Jason Isbell on “Break Away Speed.”

Robbie Fulks – Gone Away Backward. Robbie is in trad country mode here and he pulls it off with deep, reflective grace. He writes about place, about memory, about everyday things. “That’s Where I’m From” is brilliant.

Bill Callahan – Dream River. Callahan is best known as Smog. I didn’t know him until a PR person sent me this dark, stunning, occasionally baffling album. Think of Leonard Cohen meets Tom Waits. At times, Callahan uses his baritone as much to convey sounds and feelings as he does words. Listen to him sing “barroom, barroom” in “Seagull” or “Beer. Thank you” in the opener, “The Sing.”

Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You.She started out as an alt country chanteuse and now Case’s songs and vocals have become increasingly complex and unpredictable. But this album may also be her most beautiful.

Holly Williams – The Highway. Yes, she has a famous daddy and a famous granddaddy, but this is the third strong solo album from the haunting Holly. She sings of love, of life on the road, and of life’s realizations on this quiet, reflective record.

Chic Gamine – Closer. Four women with incredible voices, one percussionist. For the most part, that’s it on this album which merges doo wop, soul, and girl group pop. I dare you not to love the title cut.

Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison – “Cheater’s Game.” Robison and Willis, partners in life, finally release a duo disc. Great choice of covers, superb harmonies, rough and smooth.

Garland Jeffreys – Truth Serum. Garland, another North Shore Point House Concerts alum, has typically been a slow writer, leaving years between albums, but he has been on a roll. This is another strong effort, typically mixing rock, pop, reggae, and blues along with social commentary.

Slaid Cleaves – Still Fighting the War.His best album in a list of good ones, affecting, honest.


The Lone Bellow – The Lone Bellow.I played this once and set it aside only to revisit it months later. This is catchy Americana with stunning harmonies — from a Brooklyn group.

Tim Easton – Not Cool.Easton comes back strong with a retro Sun Records sound.

Greg Trooper – Incident on Willow Street. The man can sing with such emotion. Soulful Americana. He’s been one of my favorite songwriters for a long time.

One of the songs I played a ton wasn’t released in 2013. It was Amanda Shires “When You Need a Train.” It’s darkly brilliant.

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My Favorite Music of 2010

Here are the discs that were most memorable for me in 2010. If you like this kind of music, please check out my house concert series, North Shore Point House Concerts, and get on the email list for 2011 shows.

Kevin Welch “A Patch of Blue Sky” (Music Road)

That Kevin Welch isn’t a household name is a crime for fans of finely wrought, soul-searching, and soul-touching songs. Welch has been writing for more than three decades and he’s a master songwriter, a son of Oklahoma (like Woody) who recently moved from Nashville to the hill country of Texas. “Blue Sky” is his first solo record in eight years (although he’s released a couple of must-have discs with buddies Kieran Kane and Fats Kaplin during that time). It’s ten songs framed by his rich, expressive voice (listen to him take that breath at just the right time on “Answer Me That”) and tasteful Americana instrumentation (hey, he’s credited with inventing the genre).

Every cut is a highlight from the opener, “Come a Rain,” a litany of simple character statements – “Jesus was a pagan, Woody was a punk” – on through the soulful, gospel sounding title track that’s both hopeful and defiant and blessed with soaring harmonies by the Trishas, which include his daughter, Savannah. Dustin, his son, lends a major hand, helping with the writing and playing guitar. Welch has never shied from the tough questions, the broken hearts and broken dreams. Welch’s heartfelt writing is only part of what makes “Blue Sky” so compelling. His voice has gotten better, more emotional, over the years. He may have been through some rough times, but he can see the clouds parting on [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JOXPovb8Yew]”A Patch of Blue Sky:”

Peter Wolf “Midnight Souvenirs” (Verve).

If you only know Peter Wolf from the late-era J. Geils Band hits, then you’re missing something, maybe everything. On “Midnight Souvenirs,” his first solo disc in eight years, he’s the master of ceremonies for a house rockin’ night of R&B (real, soulful analog R&B). Just try to stay in your seat. Wolf, the night owl, leads you through a long night into day of hip-shaking, love making (and breaking), and soul depraving time. Wolf chooses his dance partners well.

A duet with Nashville bad girl Shelby Lynne on“Tragedy” is a perfect marriage. The cut opens the album and announces we’re going to party over the sadness.  A mid-album folk rock turn by Neko Case on the fiddle-driven “The Green Fields of Summer” provides a welcome breather. And Merle Haggard indulges Wolf’s twang inclinations with the closing “It’s Too Late for Me.” (Wolf started his career as a DJ and I wonder if “Green Fields” pays homage to the folk classic while “Watch Her Move,” a rollicking piece of R&B makes a nod to Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “She Moves Me”).

Bruce Springsteen “The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story” (Columbia).

The deluxe boxed set is a revelation in several ways. First, there’s the newly released material, two discs of buoyant pop rock that ranges from the smolder or “Fire” (yes, written for Elvis who died during these sessions) to the rocking “Because the Night” to the Buddy Holly beat of “Outside Looking In.” The songs are so filled with pop overdubs and instrumentation that they’re jarring at first in contrast to the beautifully remastered disc of “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” Springsteen’s best album. In the accompanying notebook, there’s a song list suggesting Springsteen was listening to Elvis, Buddy Holly, Percy Sledge, Phil Spector’s girl groups, and the Animals during this period and the songs show those influences, sometimes on their sleeves. In a way, they’re the missing link between “Darkness” and “Born in the USA.”

The DVDs are excellent, especially the documentary on the making of the album, the live show from Houston in 1978 and other goodies, notably a searing version of “Badlands” live from Phoenix, 1978. The reproduced notebook with revision after revision of lyrics and song choices is an enlightening glimpse into Springsteen’s work ethic. More than anything, the set shows Springsteen’s inner editor and discipline. “Darkness” would have been a weaker album with any of the discarded cuts, including “Because the Night,” even though they’re superb songs. In the documentary, Springsteen says “Because” would not have fit as a love song and he didn’t feel he had the perspective and time to judge whether it was a good song or not. That’s the kind of internal discipline and focus that makes an artist great.

Darrell Scott “A Crooked Road” (Full Light).

I’ve been a fan of Scott’s since his “Aloha from Nashville,” but “Crooked Road” may be a career best and that’s saying something for the guy who spent part of this year playing in Robert Plant’s Band of Joy (after touring with Steve Earle last year). This two-disc set turns deeply inward for a mid-life meditation on family, love, longing, and where he’s headed. It’s a mile wide and a mile deep with plenty to ponder even as you tap your toe along with Scott’s fluid melodies and voice, which can range from comforting to ragged and raw (notably on the bluesy “Where the Spirit Meets the Bone.”)

Scott plays every instrument and sings layers of vocals on every cut. And he doesn’t just contribute the strings he’s famous for, but cello, piano, organ, accordion, bass, drum, and percussion. the Dixie Chicks, Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and others have made his songs hits but it’s clear from “The Crooked Road” that the best interpreter of Darrell Scott tunes is Darrell Scott.

Tift Merritt “See You on the Moon” (Fantasy).

Tift Merritt’s latest meditation opens with “Mixtape,” a catchy pop song driven by hand claps and framed by strings about making a mixtape for a potential lover, the narrator seeing herself “like a rare B-side.” It’s utterly captivating and it’s also utterly unlike anything else on the album.

Few artists have made an many stylistic turns in as few albums at Merritt, who debuted as an alt country chanteuse on “Bramble Rose,” then moved into mainstream blue-eyed rock and soul on the Grammy-nominated “Tambourine” before the quiet “Another Country.” “See You on the Moon” is an often revelatory album that walks the line between the best of her last two efforts.”Engine to Turn” and the Byrdsy “Six More Days of Rain” reach the edge of the catchiness found on “Tambourine.” “Never Talk About It,” guided by a strummed acoustic guitar, and “All the Reasons We Don’t Have to Fight,” are spare, elegant, and beautiful. Merritt’s voice has grown quieter, more emotionally fragile over time. If “Tambourine” grabbed you and demanded attention, “Moon” sits back and beckons.

Tim O’Brien “Chicken & Egg” (Howdy Skies Records).

“Chicken & Egg” floats by so easily and tastefully, it’s tempting to underestimate the craft in Tim O’Brien’s playing and singing. Best known for his bluegrass playing in Hot Rize and other ensembles, O’Brien’s 13th album covers plenty of ground from the amusing title cut to remembrances of his mother and father, both of whom have died in recent years, to a serious hymn about sinners. “Not Afraid of Dyin’ ” is a moving collection of things O’Brien’s father said. The music meanders easily from swing to gentle rockabilly. There are well chosen covers and a typically hilarious “The Sun Jumped Up” with lyrics from Woody Guthrie set to O’Brien’s music.

Blue Rodeo “The Things We Left Behind” (TeleSoul)

It says something about Blue Rodeo’s Lower 48 profile that this fine double disc was released in their native Canada last November, but not in the States until a couple of months later. Why the group never rode the alt country wave of the 1990s that saw Wilco, The Jayhawks, Whiskeytown and others emerge isn’t clear. Blue Rodeo has sold millions of albums up north, won a ton of Juno awards and regularly sells out arenas. Not so much here and that’s a shame. Especially because after a couple of treading-water releases, the band is back in excellent form this time out, moving easily from rockers to ballads to a couple of stretched-out jams on an ambitious double disc that clocks in at 80 minutes (two easily digestible albums).

Greg Keelor and Jim Cuddy, the songwriters and co-lead singers, have been penning great tunes for nearly 30 years. On The Things We Left Behind” there’s a sampling of roots styles here, from rockers to ballads and they all work. They explore influences ranging from The Beatles  — several cuts feature “Abbey Road”-era harmonies and guitar work — to the early Eagles/California sound of “Arizona Dust” to rockers like “Never Look Back” and “Candice,” which opens with a piano riff that instantly brings The Band to mind. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say these guys are direct descendants of The Band. Their writing has been consistently superb over a long period and now, as they look back on a life lived, it’s grown only deeper. “It’s such a small place you came from; it’s so far the other way that you’ve gone,” they sing on “Million Miles.”    Along with “Diamond Mine,” “Five Days in July” and “Lost Together,” “The Things We Left Behind” is essential, a return to form that shows the band still has plenty left.

Graham Parker “Imaginary Television” (Bloodshot).

The conceit behind this album, if you believe the press release (and I don’t), is that Graham Parker was asked to create a theme song for a television show. His offering was summarily rejected and that sent him off penning an album of tunes for non-existent shows, shows he’s outlined in the liner notes. To me, that sounds like the wiseass Parker just having one more laugh. The premises are amusing. Parker claims “Weather Report,” the disc’s rocking opener, is about a television series centered on an agoraphobic who’s obsessed with the Weather Channel. But his lyrics portray a man on the outside trying to figure it all out.

Whatever the motivation and creative juice, “Imaginary Television” is one damn fine, if often mellow, rock and roll record with Parker’s typically sneering wit looking at life after mid-life. Close listens — and this disc only gets better with each listen — reveals “Imaginary Television” is a song cycle about a man taking stock of who he is and where he fits as an artist, pamphleteer, and a husband and father. “I don’t feel comfortable inside my own skin,” he sings. “It doesn’t keep things in.”

Kim Richey “Wreck Your Wheels” (Thirty Tigers).

Kim Richey burst onto the scene 15 years ago as the next big thing in country music. But country music abandoned her (and country music) for arena rock retreads and, on her last few albums, Richey has abandoned country music, even alt country, for a quirky, introspective pop style the defies boundaries. Just listen to the opening title cut,  a slow-burning lament.

Richey spends a lot of time in London these days and “Wreck Your Wheels” has a post-Beatles feel to the instrumentation, which is colored at times by cello, flugelhorn, glockenwhatsit, and vibes. Recorded in Nashville with the band in one room, there is a compelling intimacy throughout. Her voice may be more beautiful and quietly captivating than ever, variously sexy and wise. The songs confront romantic heartache, a longtime Richey staple, but also explore maturity. All are co-writes with some of Nashville’s best, including Will Kimbrough, Mark Olson, Pat McLaughlin and Britain’s Boo Hewerdine. (Pay attention to the video. That’s my kids with the word “wouldn’t” at the 1:32 mark).

Megan McCormick “Honest Words” (Ryko).

Megan McCormick’s debut album opens with one of the best guitar riffs of the year, a brooding intro to the rockhouse raw”Shiver,” a tune Stevie Ray Vaughan would have been proud to play. McCormick,  a 24-year-old Nashville songwriter who grew up in Idaho and Alaska and studied bluegrass in college, has made a good, old fashioned electic rock record with touches of juke joint rock blues, k.d. lang’s atmosphere, and Bonnie Raitt’s heartfelt rock. Why it went largely unnoticed is baffling.

“Gonna sell my soul to the rock and roll” she sings on “Do Right,” a loping rock cut that, like so much of the album, insinuates itself effortlessly so you’re unconsciously tapping along. “Addiction” barrels along like a cut from an early Heart album. But there are also beautifully introspective numbers like “Wreck” and “Lonely Tonight,” a lush torch song. Throughout, McCormick’s guitar playing, rich and deep, highlights tune after tune. There’s nothing “alt” about McCormick’s disc, which may explain the lack of attention. But it’s a superb, promising debut.

Eric Brace and Peter Cooper “Master Sessions” (Red Beet Records).

“Master Sessions” is testimony to the magic that happens when you put two up and coming singer/songwriters and a small group of brilliant Nashville players and hit record. Brace, the creative force behind Last Train Home, and Cooper, an emerging solo artist, combine for more than the sum of their past.  The harmonies are unforgettable, classic, and touching. The covers are perfect from the opening version of a Seldom Scene favorite to Tom T. Hall’s “I Flew Over Our House Last Night.” The originals, including Cooper’s co-write with Don Schlitz (“The Gambler”) and the duo’s “Circus” fit with the classics. And the side players — the boys’ heroes — Lloyd Green (the Byrds, numerous others) on pedal steel and Mike Auldridge (Seldom Scene) on dobro. Nashville veterans Pat McInerney, Dave Roe (Johnny Cash) and Jen Gunderman (Jayhawks) help make this one of the irresistible surprises of the year.

Justin Townes Earle “Harlem River Blues” (Bloodshot).

This album is so unpretentious yet so sweeping in its view of America and its musical touchstones. From workers on the MTA to lovers on the wane, from Harlem to the mines of West Virginia, from The Replacements to rockabilly, from Woody folk to slow-burning soul, this disc shows the breadth of Earle’s interests. Earle seems to have taken all he’s digested and the experience of his previous albums and distilled it into this gem. And it needs to be said: “Workin’ for the MTA” is an instant classic.

His recent move to New York has only widened his wandering eye. Earle has a keen sense of character and a willingness to step out from under his famous father’s shadow. If he can keep the demons at bay, he has the potential to become the next great chronicler of the American experience.